My friend Andrew Morris, originally from Wales now living in Dhaka — a teacher, writer with a keen eye and a fast pen, and a musician with a mean mouth on the soprano sax — has launched a campaign to raise funds for a new shelter for survivors of trafficking, rape, domestic slavery, and exploitation. The shelter will include dormitories, school and training facilities, garden and play area, and an auditorium and multi-purpose hall.
I would like you to visit the campaign's website and donate what you can. There's a PayPal link, but you don't have to sign up with PayPal. You can use a credit card. The campaign's made a great start, and while the target is ambitious, I'm confident they will carry it through.
When Andrew introduced me to the campaign, I'd already been reading his articles describing his visits to the present shelter. I asked if I could come along one day.
On the first Friday in May, a day when the heat passed the 100 degree mark, four of us set out from the Daily Star office towards Agargaon just a couple of miles to the north. Three of us — Hana Shams Ahmed on one side, Andrew on the other, me in the middle — squeezed in the back of a green natural gas driven three-wheeler. The fourth, Zahedul Khan, rode his own motorcycle. He followed us at first, then we lost him in Dhaka's traffic snarls. Hana is an editor at Star Weekend Magazine, Zahed works there as a photographer, and Andrew is a regular contributor.
Our destination was the shelter of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA). Hana and Zahed came along to prepare an article about kids at the shelter. Star Weekend Magazine has done a terrific job hammering away at the slavery-like conditions faced by domestic workers in Bangladesh.
It was the story of one abused child worker that brought me together with this crew. Last fall when I first arrived here, the magazine carried a story about two children found lying on the ground next door to an apartment building in Dhanmondi. Moni, fifteen years old, was dead. Ten-year old Madhabi survived, her bones broken. They had been servants in the building next door. When Madhabi was in the hospital, her employer managed to grab her back. The child was persuaded that she had 'fallen' from the sixth floor roof. Over a four-foot high railing, mind you. The BNWLA rescued her and she recovered in their shelter before returning to her family. The murder case about her co-worker is still pending. Hana told us that not a single employer has ever been convicted of the murder of a domestic worker. Nearly every month there is news of at least one such murder.
Under the blistering sun, we arrived outside a multi-storied building. Andrew said it had originally been an old people's home. Next door there was a hospital. The neighborhood is occupied by other institutional buildings. A small store near the entrance sold the usual range of items: cigarettes, biscuits, snacks, toiletries. The road outside was wide, but traffic was sparse.
Entering the building, we found refuge from the heat. We were greeted by a counselor and a former staff member who now volunteers there. Seating us in the conference room on the first floor, they gave us an overview of the place. Then we walked upstairs for a short tour. The stairway walls were lined with bright-colored posters.
Who lives here? Many are victims of trafficking. When a large group of boys were repatriated from the Persian Gulf where they had been abducted to work as camel jockeys, their first stop home was this shelter. The BNWLA reconnected them with their families. They have yet to find one boy's home. Some residents are survivors of rape. Many are missing children turned over from police stations. Some are survivors of attempted murder. About seventy percent of the children are entangled in legal cases. Their stay here can range from a few days to years. Where possible, the shelter tries to reunite children with their families. Otherwise they keep them until they can find decent places for long term placement. While the children are here, the staff provide them with counseling, a safe space, education, and opportunities for play and recreation.
On the second floor, we visited a classroom for little children. About ten children were playing with legos and jigsaw puzzles, looked after by a teenage girl who's also a resident at the shelter. A girl with short hair missing her front teeth smiled at us and declared that she was going to build a staircase. A boy with an eager smile jumped up and proudly showed us the jigsaw puzzle he had completed.
On the same floor we saw a room they called a free space. Here they organize cultural programs and lawyers prepare residents for the realities of the courtroom. On the other side of the floor was a library. Three young girls were reading books. The next room housed a professional training center where residents learned how to operate sewing machines.
We climbed the stairs to one more floor. Here we visited the medical examination room and day care center. The open space on this floor was occupied by over a dozen children watching television. This floor also houses some bedrooms. Each room was neat, laid out with four single beds. The upper floors serve as dormitories.
As we returned downstairs, our guide pointed out a box called 'Things you can't talk about.' It's a box for residents to drop letters on confidential issues. They write with complaints about other residents or staff, or they bring up emotional problems they have so far felt unable to voice.
We returned to the conference room. Hana had asked to interview some of the children and a group joined us in the room for snacks and conversation.
The shelter is run by a staff of 40. They include house mothers, counselors, teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses and administrative staff. The house mothers are there 24 hours. Some older residents of the shelter work as aides, cooks, and caretakers. The majority of the staff are women.
I asked the counselor to describe a typical day. One day they received a call to accept sixteen teenage girls picked up from a hotel. The girls did not want to be in the shelter. When she went in to talk to them, they were sullen. What do you want with us, they demanded to know. If one among them wanted to talk, others would pull her away. They refused breakfast. Two counselors went among them, trying to earn their confidence. They received both curses and the silent treatment. The girls finally agreed to have lunch. It took the entire day for them to feel comfortable.
Though there were about 120 residents there when we visited, sometimes they have had to accommodate 200. They do not have enough room for their needs. The residents miss having an open area outdoors. The BNWLA has acquired land in Gazipur, a northern suburb of Dhaka. Here residents would have more room, more facilities, and open space.
We should have a society that does not require shelters. Even the best of shelters, no matter what humane services are provided, is confining. It is a reminder of society's failure. But as long as society fails, places of refuge are necessary and where they go up, they should have open space, sufficient room, and facilities to prepare people for returning to society. I felt confident after this visit that the BNWLA effort deserves wide support.
Visit the fund raising campaign website at http://www.bnwlahostel.org
"Missing" — Hana Shams Ahmed's article from the visit. http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2007/05/02/rights.htm
Andrew Morris's articles in series:
"Lost childhood" about Madhabi
"Out of darkness" — visiting Madhabi at the shelter
"Starting over" — about the BNWLA shelter
"Brick by brick" — on the campaign for a new building